Exempt from TAX
By Ron Lesher
The recent discussion of how long one has to be dead before one’s portrait can appear on a postage stamp reminds one of the practice of picking portraits for revenue stamps beginning about 1870. Columbus Delano was appointed Commissioner of Internal Revenue in March of 1869 and served in that position until November 1, 1870 when President Ulysses S. Grant appointed him Secretary of the Interior. During his time as Commissioner of Internal Revenue he instituted the practice of using the current commissioner’s portrait on the hydrometer labels, a stamp-like piece of paper that was inserted into official glass hydrometers that were used by government agents to determine the proof of distilled spirits and thus assess the proper tax. The practice would be copied by his successor in Internal Revenue, Alfred Pleasanton.
The corruption that permeated much of President Grant’s administration became especially rampant in the Bureau of Indian Affairs in the Department of the Interior during Delano’s tenure, and it ultimately led to Delano resigning his position on October 19, 1875 because of evidence that his son had been given partnerships in surveying contracts over which the Interior Department had control.
In 1871 near the end of President Grant’s first term in office a new printing arrangement was agreed upon for printing the distilled spirits tax paid stamps. The Continental Bank note Company would print the frames of the stamps and the Bureau of Engraving and Printing would do the vignettes and stubs, serially number the stamps, and bind them into booklets. A series of 13 stamps was needed, 10 to 130 gallons. The choice of individuals portrayed on this series and repeated on the Series of 1872 (issued for a tax increase) provides an insightful look into political thank yous.
The individuals portrayed on the stamps were:
10 gallons - George Henry Thomas (1816 - 1870)
20 gallons - William Pitt Fessenden (1806 - 1869)
30 gallons - Oliver Wolcott, Jr. (1760 - 1833)
40 gallons - Winfield Scott (1786 - 1866)
50 gallons - Francis E. Spinner (1802 - 1890)
60 gallons - Alexander Hamilton (1757 - 1804)
70 gallons - Martin Van Buren (1782 - 1862)
80 gallons - Zachary Taylor (1784 - 1850)
90 gallons - John J. Cisco (1806 - 1884)
100 gallons - John A. Dix (1798 - 1879)
110 gallons - Salmon P. Chase (1803 - 1873)
120 gallons - Columbus Delano (1809 - 1896)
130 gallons - Abraham Lincoln (1809 - 1865)
The selection of Alexander Hamilton, the first Secretary of the Treasury, for one of the stamps in the series was quite logical. Selecting the architect of the first internal revenue excises on distilled spirits on the 60 gallon stamp, one of the most widely used denominations of the series, made a strong statement. Oliver Wolcott, Jr., the second Secretary of the Treasury and an advocate of Hamilton’s policies, was also a well-reasoned choice for the 30 gallon stamp. Following in this vein, a tribute to Martin Van Buren, advocate of an independent treasury, seems quite appropriate and he appears on the 70 gallon stamp.
Another theme embraced in this series includes several popular military figures. Winfield Scott, “Old Fuss and Feathers,” was a hero in both the War of 1812 and the Mexican War. At the outset of the civil War he had retired after 20 years as the supreme commander of the U. S. Army. He is found on the widely used 40 gallon denomination. Zachary “Old Rough and Ready” Taylor, another hero of the Mexican War and who had died during his term as President, was picked for the 80 gallon stamp. Taylor’s son Dick, was still alive and he had served as a general in the Confederate army.
The martyred President Abraham Lincoln, portrayed as early as June on 1865 on revenue stamps, was selected for the 130 gallon stamp.
For these six stamps, the subjects were very safe choices. But for the remaining seven stamps of the series, one cannot say the same. They are a collection of political party favorites, Union military heroes, and in one case, a minor political functionary. Five of the seven were still very much alive, and the other two had only recently died.
On the special 10 gallon stamp used for fruit brandy (on other distilled spirits there was a minimum 20 gallon container size requirement) the late General George Thomas, who had earned the nickname “the Rock of Chicamagua,” was portrayed. His presence on the series could not have been greeted with enthusiasm
in the southern states, where much of the fruit brandy was being produced.
Salmon P. Chase, whose portrait graces the 110 gallon stamp, had served as Secretary of the Treasury from 1861 to 1864 and was Chief Justice of the Supreme Court at the time the stamp was issued. The person who succeeded Chase as Secretary of the Treasury in 1864, the late William Pitt Fessenden, had previously served as head of the Senate Finance Committee and was considered one of the finest minds in the area of public finance in the 1860’s. Fessenden was portrayed on the 20 gallon stamp.
John Dix, for whom Ft. Dix in New Jersey is named, had served as Secretary of the Treasury from 1859 until 1861. During the Civil War he held the rank of major general. After the war he had served as minister to France until 1869. His political life was not over, for in 1872 he was elected governor of New York. He was nominated for the 100 gallon stamp.
Francis Spinner, the Treasurer of the United States from 1861 until 1875, had previously been pictured on the Third issue 50¢ Fractional Currency note. Portrayed on the 50 gallon stamp he is the second current member of the Grant administration featured in the series.
Columbus Delano, already mentioned at the beginning of this article, appears on the 120 gallon stamp. He is the third member of the Grant administration featured on the 1871 distilled spirits tax paid stamps.
That leaves John J. Cisco on the 90 gallon stamp. He was a successful New York businessman who was the head of the subtreasury in New York at the time that these stamps were issued.
The Bureau of Engraving and Printing was obviously trying to please (perhaps even attempting to curry favor with) the President and his political confidants. As political as the choices on the series of 1871 may have been, this was not the end of such blatant abuse. In January, 1875, the American Bank Note Company gained the contract for printing the distilled spirits stamps and placed President Grant himself on all denominations of the new distilled spirits stamps (figure three). The rectified spirits stamp had the portrait of James Beck, Democratic congressman from Kentucky. Neither portrait last long on stamps. when the tax was increased on March 3, 1875, Grant was replaced with the martyred President Lincoln and Beck was replaced with the venerated architect of internal excise taxes on distilled spirits, Alexander Hamilton.
This episode alone should alert us to the abuse of picturing living individuals on our postage stamps. Waiting ten years may remove the temptation to honor political favoritism on our postage stamps.